Never before has it been so difficult for me to restrain myself from spoiling a film’s crucial plot twist. In the back of my mind, there is the hope that by giving everything away, I can spare even more people from watching Japanese Story. And oh, what a happy feeling that would be.
Sure, I know it’s petty, and probably unprofessional. And yes, there are bound to be people who find this Australian cross-cultural romance touching and genuine instead of forced and tedious. But just maybe, if I blow the lid off everything that’s coming, it will be patently obvious how little there is about Japanese Story that isn’t grasping for a cheap emotional response it doesn’t do one honest thing to earn.
At least I can start at the beginning: There’s Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), an Australian geologist and designer of specialized software for mining operations. She gets the crap job of playing tour guide to Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), the son of a Japanese businessman whose company could be a lucrative client for Sandy’s small company. Naturally, tensions develop. Hiro thinks Sandy is too loud and pushy; Sandy hates the way the reserved Hiro treats her like a chauffeur.
If you’ve seen any Hollywood romance ever, the vehemence with which the two characters dislike each other can only be a guarantee that they will end up sleeping together. Early on, however, it appears that director Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson may be taking things in a slightly edgier direction. Hiro feints and dodges over the reason for his visit, which may have nothing to do with his father’s business. Then, when Hiro urges Sandy to take them into a desolate part of the Outback and their truck gets stuck in sand—with Hiro reluctant to let anyone know by cell phone where they are—a strange survival yarn threatens to break out.
Unfortunately, one overnight stay later, they manage to escape—and promptly end up sleeping together. That’s not the crucial super-secret plot point mentioned earlier, especially since the film’s poster prominently features Collette and Tsunashima lying in the same bed. From awkward, inexplicable one-night stand, their relationship develops into an even more awkward and inexplicable affair.
Hiro’s behavior at least makes superficial sense, since it becomes clear that he’s a frustrated, dissatisfied man looking for something he can’t find in Japan. Sandy, on the other hand, is an uptight career woman for whom the instant intensity of the pairing makes no sense. Collette has plenty of chops as an actress, but other than getting the chance to use her own native accent for a change, it’s hard to comprehend what drew her to this role. “Here in the desert, you have shown me something beautiful,” Hiro tells Sandy during one idyllic moment. What exactly Hiro is showing to Sandy remains tucked away in the filmmakers’ notebooks somewhere.
And then ... and then ... something happens. Samuel Goldwyn Pictures has pointedly instructed media not to reveal what it is that happens, perhaps concerned that foreknowledge might damage the experience of the stuff that precedes it. In fact, the plot point itself damages everything that comes after, turning what had been simply a predictable, implausible East-meets-West melodrama into something catastrophically silly. Collette gets plenty of opportunities to run through an award-grubbing gamut of emotions, never apparently concerned that her character still doesn’t make a lick of sense. If Japanese Story had been made in Hollywood, people would be howling at the camp value. Panoramic vistas and interesting accents don’t turn it into a sensitive work of art.
It’s an extraordinary act of will, but I’ll keep that little secret. I’ll keep it even though what follows hints at themes that could be considered borderline offensive. The pretty pictures could be enough for some people, and maybe the first half—the part before You Know What happens—will provide a few moments of intrigue. There’s even one solid scene resulting from You Know What itself before the film goes into its death spiral.
So no spoilers here, just a stern warning that Japanese Story has little more to offer than lame middle-brow sap. That’s one secret I just can’t keep to myself.
JAPANESE STORY, **, Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Rated, R